It will likely be a dichotomy all year. At least, that is the expectation. Every praise of Notre Dame’s secondary will be followed by a clarification that the applause applies specifically to the Irish cornerbacks. At times that will be an implied criticism of Notre Dame’s safeties, but even more often it will probably be an acknowledgement of an Irish strength. Of the choices ahead for defensive coordinator Clark Lea, settling on a rotation among cornerbacks is the only one created by a plethora of proven contributors.
With a trio of rising juniors in Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn along with rising senior Shaun Crawford and fifth-year Nick Watkins, Lea has five viable options for two starting roles. That excess will allow Notre Dame to rely on its nickel package at length this fall, and never hesitate about slipping a fourth cornerback onto the field in dime situations.
For now, the springtime emphasis is as much on improving the group as it is about settling on a pecking order.
“We’re really working on the competition end of things,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Add [early-enrolled freshman] Houston Griffith to that mix and we have what we feel is really good depth and competition. We want to take our game to a new level, and that new level is we have to be much more efficient on driving on some of the more intermediate and short routes and getting off the field on third down.”
In the past, the Irish focused on keeping everything in front of the secondary, often at the expense of giving up short-to-medium gains while limiting big-play mistakes.
“We’re probably a little bit over the top in terms of staying on our (backpedal) on some quick game things that didn’t allow us to close,” Kelly said. “The emphasis for our corners is to tighten up on some of the quick game.”
An optimistic reading between the lines could see that change in approach as evidence of a step forward from Notre Dame’s safeties. The risk of limiting the quick passing game is it would allow a receiver to get past the coverage with a simple double-move. If a safety can be relied on to provide over-the-top relief, that concern is mitigated.
Such a role may befit rising junior Alohi Gilman well. Gilman is best-known for his 76 tackles as a freshman at Navy, compared to five pass breakups and no interceptions. A dozen of those tackles came against the Irish, furthering his reputation as a physical force ready to provide run support. Kelly has seen a different side of Gilman this spring.
“He’s on the ball and somebody that can play the ball in the air,” Kelly said. “I don’t know if we had an interception from a safety last year. [Gilman is] a guy that will get his hands on the ball.”
Note: Notre Dame’s safeties recorded zero interceptions and a combined total of five pass breakups in 2017.
Whoever ends up as the starting safeties, they will rely on the standard set by the cornerbacks to make their lives easier. In particular, third-year starter Love will have more opportunities with a shift toward a pressing defense. He has already shown a knack for jumping routes with great results, after all. Three times in 2017 Love correctly read quick routes and stepped in for an interception, returning two interceptions for touchdowns and coming yards away from a third.
“We’re going to be doing some things that are going to accentuate his ability to play press coverage,” Kelly said. “We want to play some press. It’s something we haven’t done much here, but it’s something he brings to our football team, and when you can press some guys and have the physicality that he has, it elevates his game.”
Imagining Love playing better than he did in 2017 — a season that saw him earn second-team All-American honors from SI.com — will strike fear into opposing quarterbacks, but if the Irish safeties are not up for the task of providing back-end support, a pressing defense could also gift those passers big-play opportunities.
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